The nature of the Pak-Afghan bilateral relationship is marred with instances of failed attempts of cooperation, open and often covert aggression, pressure tactics, and an incessant blame game that makes way for a sparse chance of optimism.
To remedy this, both countries agreed to revive the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit (SCO) – one that was plagued with problems earlier on due to the reluctance of the Taliban to come to the table, and the usual animosity in the Islamabad-Kabul relationship.
However, while Pakistan utilized the SCO summit to send its message across regarding its commitment to fighting the menace of militancy in the region by jumpstarting a dialogue between both countries, there’s no guarantee that it will bear any fruits this time around.
The fact that a multilateral summit was used to communicate this desire, on the periphery of other more ‘important’ issues on the agenda, is a cause for concern as it is. It hints to the absence of bilateral diplomatic cooperation – pivotal for regulating bilateral relations, where both countries see it fit to test the waters but not delve into them completely: to ascertain real progress, the concerns of both parties need to be addressed wholly, without deviation, or avoiding the subject.
The language used in the statement released by Pakistan’s Foreign Office on the meeting echoes nothing more than a verbal commitment with mechanisms that are ambiguous at best, where a framework to truly decipher the feats of the cooperation are yet to be decided. It reads:
“The two leaders agreed to use the Quadrilateral Coordination Group mechanism as well as bilateral channels to undertake specific actions against terrorist groups and to evolve, through mutual consultations, a mechanism to monitor and verify such actions”
Big words, half-baked plans, and a lack of direction is what has been the reality of the Pak-Afghan relationship on the terror front, where both sides have been unhappy with the other side’s commitment to target militant groups – if the “mutual consultations” fail to be bilateral, the “mechanism” continues to be bleary, and the focus as narrow as it is right now, optimists rooting for the revival of the QCG translating into more stable Pak-Afghan relations should be ready for disappointment.
A new layer peeling through the Pak-Afghan relationship is of China’s increasing interest in seeing relations between Islamabad and Kabul mitigated. The development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) stands as a major reason for China’s evolving role in the region, where its economic strategy with respect to the One Belt and One Road initiative pushes it to be more involved.
In a region where economics and security work in tandem, China is pushed to fuse its economic interests with its regional security interests where its projects could possibly be affected by the ongoing situation in both countries. It is perhaps for this reason that Kabul is pushing China to find a workable solution between the two, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi soon to visit Kabul to consider the role of mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And this is what the optimists can pin their hopes on: the idea that this QCG, and the attempt to resuscitate Pak-Afghan relations could be a possibility considering that both countries want to maintain good ties with China, and would have to correct their attitudes and intentions towards each other to please the former. A statement by the deputy spokesman for Ghani reflects the same:
“…this time the quadrilateral meeting which will be held between Afghanistan, Pakistan, [the] U.S., and China would be different compared to past meetings”
The first step towards the peace process for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the QCG would be to understand why earlier efforts at cooperation against identified terrorists failed and why there was a lack of commitment from both ends leading to finger pointing and accusatory tones. All parties need to identify if this was due to negligence and not taking the issue seriously, a lack of trust and hence commitment to dealing with a problem affecting the other side, or either party stalling the process and not giving it its due time and attention.
Once these are identified, trust-building measures, and areas requiring cooperation should be addressed, alongside an exercise to identify mutually shared interests and concerns regarding security in the region. As of now, the Islamic State group seems to be a good starting point for both countries, something that they can mutually agree on eliminating, without any controversy or conflict.
Whatever it is needs a clear framework, one that is not opaque, and is precise in identifying what needs to be done, and how and when it is to be done. To avoid further denting the trust and bilateral relationship between both countries, this needs to be done sooner than later. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan– but especially Pakistan—need to consider their bilateral relationship under the slowly unfolding US policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan with all its implications for the region.